Syrian Refugee Women Knitting for a Better Future

It has always been a challenge for women to take part in professional life and to financially support their families for a better and brighter future especially for their children to have a quality education. Unfortunately, it becomes more challenging if a woman needs to achieve this all alone. These challenges are significant even when women face them at their home countries, speaking in their mother language and feeling the support of their families and friends around!

What if all these are taken away from you? Imagine that you are dragged away from everything to which you are accustomed; the place where you were born, you studied, you worked, and you enlarged your family and friends circle. Now that you have to leave all these behind and you are forced to start a fresh new life. Even worse, you are forced to do this due to a war!

A war that has effected more than 4 million Syrian citizens today, now called as Syrian refugees. A war that split up a whole country, and all its heritage. They are spread all around the world, majority settling down in the most welcoming neighbor country, Turkey. Having 511 mile border with Syria, Turkey adopted an open border policy after the conflict. More than 2.7 million Syrian refugees landed on many different cities around Turkey, nearly 20 percent in Istanbul. They are undergoing the most painful human tragedy as they are trying to heal their scars, both physically and mentally, trying to adopt new lives and homes on different geographies. Most of them had to fall apart from family members. Some stayed in Syria, some arrived in Turkey, and some were able to make their way to Europe while some lost their lives! They still have tremendous hope in their heart: One day they will all get together and return back to their home towns although most of those towns are all ruined by now. They will rebuild!
Syrian conflict started in 2011, but it wasn’t until that mind blowing photo of the innocent little boy with red t-shirt laying down on the beautiful beach of Bodrum appeared one morning in the press. This revealed true consequences of the war. “Humanity washed ashore” was the caption the Turkish press used.

All people around the world felt deeply saddened and sorry, started to get around on the idea that it is a shame for humanity and this should not be the faith for innocent people, especially children. Unfortunately, it wasn’t first or last of such heart breaking incidents. However, this became a symbol by raising the awareness around the world to give a hand so that these lives won’t disappear within fights, bombs or waves! 
For the ones who are lucky enough to settle down to start a new life in different cities in Turkey, the story continues. They need to struggle to survive. According to statistics, nearly half of the refugee population who end up in Turkey are children. It became a very familiar and heartbreaking scene to see them sleeping or begging on the streets. Some of them started to work to support their family and to give their siblings the education opportunity that they have already missed. Yes, it is more than four years that this conflict exists and many children aren’t attending school since then. This is a big education gap! And as long as we let this be the future for them, there will be a lost generation, uneducated, heartbroken and likely angry. 
This is the exact motivation and starting point for Bridge to Turkiye Fund’s high impact project for Syrian Refugee Children’s Education:

Don’t let them be a lost Generation”

Bridge to Türkiye Fund (BTF), is a Non-Profit Organization founded in North Carolina in 2003. Since then, it has been raising funds to support the education of socially and economically disadvantaged children in Turkey. Donations received from all around USA by means of local centers, which is called “giving circles”, are delivered as Books4Kids, Dictionaries4Kids, Coats4Kids, Boots4Kids, Schoolbags4Kids, Toys4Kids to students in need. This year one more program is added to our project portfolio: Knits4Kids! This program provides Hat-Scarf-Gloves sets for the students who are in the distant village schools in cold areas of Turkey. As cold as described by a teacher that your eyelashes freeze while walking a few blocks, temperature being as low as -22F! Some of these children walk miles to reach their schools everyday under this weather condition without proper clothing to protect them. Along with providing coats and boots, BTF decided to provide knitted sets to protect them better.

Knits4Kids, has another special aspect. Knowing the story of the Syrian refugees described so far, I threw out an idea: What if Syrian Refugee women knit these sets for the school children that BTF is supporting? Women will benefit from this income to support their own children’s educational expenses. While their mothers get the opportunity to provide for their children, Syrian refugee children will go to school! When I mentioned this to Shannon from Small Project Istanbul, she loved the idea.

Duaa models the knitted hat and scarf made by her mother 
in the Olive Tree Craft Collective. And other children helping their mother as Duaa. Photos: Pierre Vicarini

Small Project Istanbul (SPI) is one of the six local partners of Bridge to Türkiye Fund for its Syrian Refugee Project. SPI is founded by an Australian woman who has been in Syria before and after the war and has seen the destructive effects on her friends’ life. She came together with volunteers from Australia, Syria, New Zealand and Turkey in Istanbul to help the innocent victims of war. They have an Art Collective named Olive Tree. They help Syrian women craft a new life in many different means of art. Shannon was able to get together with a team of 20 woman who are willing to participate in Knits4Kids initiative. They quickly embraced the idea. BTF’s and SPI’s goals and ideas were aligned perfectly together. Communication and management was very smooth. Consequently, we were able to start shipping 300 knit-sets that Syrian women created to schools in rural areas of Turkey within nearly a month after we decided to start the project!

Here you can see a capture of happy students from Van Akcay Mezrasi Elementary School who received these BTF gifts knitted by Syrian women in the Olive Tree Art Collective of SPI.

BTF’s Knits4Kids project was praised both by SPI and from the women who were employed as part of the project. They really enjoyed working in an environment where they have the chance of socializing with other woman while doing the work they enjoy in a peaceful environment. They are happy and content since their effort is truly appreciated and valued. Most of them see this as a good opportunity to start and continue to exist in work life, and more importantly their self-confidence is increasing.

A Scene from Women’s Workshop

Here are some true stories refugee women shared with us on how hard they are trying to survive and continue with a decent life as they deserve.

Amal has three of her children living with her in Istanbul and the fourth is in Germany. She’s dreaming of the day when they can all live together again, wherever that may be. She arrived from Damascus four months ago and joined the collective because she needed work, but is now also glad for the opportunity to meet new people as well. 
“It’s a good job — it’s respectful,” says Amal, who worked in a laundromat in Syria. Now she’s hoping for a safe life for her children and a chance for them to finish their education.

Sausan came from Damascus four months ago and is living with one of her sons in Istanbul, while her other two sons are in Germany and her husband is still back in Syria. She came to Turkey so her children could have a better future, but was surprised by the high prices. Sausan joined the craft collective after she was unable to find a job, in order to be able to cover her rent and food and to care for her son. She heard about it from her neighbors and is glad to have a job where the hours aren’t long, but the money is decent. She says she loves the work itself, and the time with the other women.

Reem left Zabdani, Syria with the hope of a better future for her children. “I lost my country and I don’t want to lose my children’s future as well.” For her, being able to afford school fees is the most important thing, so that her children can be educated and have good careers later in life. She joined the Olive Tree Craft Collective because she wants to build a decent life again, like she used to have in Syria. She says it’s very hard to pay for her family’s basic expenses, especially school fees. Reem likes coming to the craft collective as there’s a community of Syrian families, and she really enjoys what she’s doing. 
“I want to move on from everything that’s happened and have a new start.”

Zeina came to Turkey three months ago from Hama, Syria with her husband, three children and son-in-law. She says she joined the Olive Tree Craft Collective because her situation is hard in Istanbul and she needs to make a living. Her husband can’t work after having open-heart surgery, and she needs to earn money to pay for his medicine as well as rent and food. “I like coming here as well because I can use my sewing skills, and it is nice getting together with other Syrian women.” Because Syrian refugees don’t have the right to work in Turkey, the only jobs available are poorly paid, require long hours and they are often taken advantage of or not paid at all. Zeina hopes for a better life, and says lack of income is the main problem.

We hope that you’ll see this project as a worldwide open charity bazaar. And, the exciting thing is everyone can contribute to this charity bazaar and help people in need. This way we are helping in two fronts; and both Syrian refugee children and school children in Turkish schools in underserved areas are benefitting from this great initiative!